Have you ever noticed how different the needs of someone who has experienced significant trauma are from those of someone who does not have traumatic wounds? Have you ever been confused when they seem to react negatively to offers to help them deal with some of their needs? If you are someone with significant unresolved trauma, have you noticed how sometimes you find it very difficult to let people come close enough to you to address some of your needs?
The primary critical needs for a trauma-impacted person is to feel safe and to have power. Anyone attempting to address those needs for that person must consider this a priority and it needs to be constantly reinforced.
Trauma-impacted children and adults are different in many ways from those who are not deeply impacted by trauma. Their brain architecture is different. Their neurological responses to themselves, others and the world are different. Their abilities to be open, honest, transparent, vulnerable, and articulate are different. Their ability to process life experiences with others can be deeply impaired.
For those reasons, meeting the needs of trauma-impacted people is extremely difficult. It can be complex and confusing. No one should be overly confident or cavalier about how to do this. In some cases, it may be virtually impossible for even very caring individuals to actually come close enough to help meet needs in a meaningful way.
That does not mean that kind, compassionate, patient, tolerant and hopeful responses do not help the trauma-impacted person. Those wishing to help need to be highly aware and appreciative of the pain and struggles these people live with every day and how the pain and struggles can impede their abilities to have authentic interactions with others. Being with people who are kind and gentle, who do not pressure, criticize, judge, or condemn can be a very new experience for those impacted by trauma. It’s good to be aware of your response; at a very core, primitive level, the experience of being around someone with these attributes can be a new experience— which could signal that it is a dangerous experience because it is unfamiliar.
The continuum of responses in meeting the needs of the trauma-impacted needs to be based on recognizing where that child or adult might be in terms of safety and abilities to trust in any given moment. Dr. Perry has an image he calls the Intimacy Barrier to explain just how cautious those interacting with the trauma-impacted need to be regarding degrees of safety that can change moment by moment. Trauma-triggers can be so sensitive that a certain facial expression, hand gesture, way of standing, way of making eye contact or any form of physical contact, voice tone and/or phrases used in conversation can be triggers.
Attempting to meet needs of the trauma-impacted requires making careful observations of that person in order to gain some clues about where they are in any given moment and how much they can tolerate being connected and then being able to engage in some level of communication that is nonthreatening. It also means developing a very thick skin when they respond as if you were intentionally seen as trying to hurt them, becoming threatening or dangerous, or are seen as no longer trustworthy.
Living with unresolved trauma has its own set of challenges. And being someone who is trauma-sensitive and trauma-competent has a different set of unique challenges. Being aware of these challenges and having strategies for addressing them is a gift someone gives to the trauma-impacted who is struggling to meet their trauma-related needs.
Invitation to Reflect
- If you have interactions with a child or adult with unresolved trauma, have you observed some of the needs they seem to have, especially regarding relational safety and trust?
- If you are someone with unresolved trauma, how does it help to know that your needs and resulting behaviors are logical, healthy responses to that unresolved trauma?
- What are some specific ways you can help to meet either your own needs and/or the needs of someone close to you who experiences the symptoms of unresolved trauma?
Diane Wagenhals, Program Director, Lakeside Global Institute